BIZ FEATURE: ISLAMORADA’S OCEAN GARDENS SHELLS OUT HOME DECOR & MORE FOR 10 YEARS

‘We had no idea it would become this’

Ann Pope, left, Phil Sena, founder and owner of Ocean Gardens, and Summer Lyman with Antique Cannon and AGA Lighthouse Beacon. CONTRIBUTED

“My initial vision was a marine store, but these two took it to another level.” Phil Sena, founder and owner of Ocean Gardens in Islamorada, credits Summer Lyman and Ann Pope for their evolution and success in their 10 years of business.

“We have been very fortunate throughout the years,” Lyman said. “The 10 years we have been in business have been absolutely amazing. Neither of us would ever want to do this without each other.” 

“We have a great team that enables us to do what we do, that we are always looking to grow, and Phil is our fearless leader,” Pope added.

Initially diving for shells and sea biscuits at age 14, Sena would come to Islamorada from Miami and stay at The Islander on the weekends. “One day, I got in my boat and started diving for shells. Then, at age 18, I made it a full-time job.”

Sena, a dream-big entrepreneur with a “heart of gold” (per Lyman and Pope), is also the owner of The Caribbean Resort. “Sea shells built the resort,” Sena said. “I made a deal because I needed the property to bring in my boat and load the shells. I made three cents apiece when I started. I would collect them on the weekends and then sell them to the local shell shops. Then, my mom would drive me to the west side of Florida so that I could sell to the stores on that coast.”

“I initially met Summer at her store (Down to Earth) and paid her unbelievable retail prices,” Sena says with full humor. “We had some tea; I told her my vision and said I would like your help with this. Lyman responded, ‘What do you have in mind?’ 

“A shell shop. I’ve been collecting over the years; let me show you what I’ve got. I thought she’d be as excited as I was when she responded, ‘We can get through this.’ Maybe I went a little heavy on shells.” 

The store was already in progress when they met and opened on Nov. 21, 2011. Lyman asked Pope to be her right-hand partner, and the two work together flawlessly.

When asked about their roles, Pope laughs and says, “Our partnership has worked out well. I just ensure she does what she needs to do — the merchandising. She’s the creative one, and I handle the behind-the-scenes, so she gets what needs to get done to be able to do that, such as communications, follow-up, emails, reorders, etc.

“Neither one of us can do what we do without the other. I am constantly bouncing ideas off her. We are very in tune with everything. We have a clear understanding, and she reads me well,” Lyman shared.

Ten years later, the inventory assortment is night and day from when they opened. They work with countless vendors to curate the best possible product for their customers. The merchandise initially consisted of metal art, lighthouses, a lot more shells, and more tourist-focused items such as magnets. Now, the store is focused on home decor and shells but still has a price point for everyone.

“Once Summer brought in more higher-end merchandise, we started to evolve,” Pope said. Since its opening, they also have added the left side, and then the right side increasing its footprint and ensuring the store is a must-stop destination.

Sena held his vision of always having a store so he could express his passion and love for the ocean. They are all extremely environmentally friendly and cautious with whom they buy from. The shells are a byproduct, so no harm is done to any sea creatures. They are also mindful and up-to-date on limits on specific sea life categories.

“Phil’s face lights up like nothing else when he sees kids looking at the shells and having a great experience.” said Lyman. “And sometimes we are mind-blown by Phil’s ideas, but it works out and makes the experience even better.”

One such idea was to purchase a dated bronze cannon circa 1640, a fixture in the store upon entry — one of four known worldwide, it was found on the ocean floor. “One day, a woman came by the store and said she had a steel cannon in a box in her woods. Because I love cannons and very unique maritime pieces, I went to take a look. I was shaken at how unique it was; the artwork is incredible. I was so determined to get it here that it blew both tires on the forklift as I tried to get it to the store.” 

“Being happy and having an environment where people come back to is important to Phil. He often gives little kids shell bags, and seeing people happy makes it a great workplace. His philosophy has worked. Oprah would love him,” said Pope.

“We want to give people ideas so they can take it home with them,” said Lyman. “We encourage them to take a picture, so they can set it back up when they get home.”.

“Building relationships with people over the 10 years has been really neat. We have watched their kids grow up.” Pope added.

Lyman and Pope agree that it’s always been about customer experience, never about a “hard sell” environment. Lyman added, “We set goals for ourselves as a business, and we have exceeded them, but there isn’t any pressure.”

With pure joy, Sena concludes, “Life is great, and I would never live anywhere else. This is family.”

The store is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Hours may be adjusted seasonally.)

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Melinda Van Fleet is a sales strategy and success coach/consultant, bestselling author of "Confidence Mastery for Couples and Life & Love Lessons," and speaker. Melinda is the host of two weekly podcasts, "The Good Karma Success Coach" and "Crush It In Sales." You can connect with her more at www.melindavanfleet.com.